Homes Bill

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Ms Karen Buck (Regents Park and Kensington, North): I am grateful to the Minister. I welcome the amendment as a strengthening of the current duty that potentially removes the degree of subjectivity that I was concerned about when I tabled the original amendment.

In trying to push the Minister to go a little further, I do not expect to be supported by Opposition Members, despite the game-playing that took place on Tuesday in respect of amendment No. 80. We heard the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) make a coruscating attack on centralised prescription and the pressure that it will put on local authorities when we discussed the amendment that dealt with the priority for ex-offenders.

Will the Minister reassure me about the duty that the amendment will place on local authorities to ensure that no one is turned away without an interview to establish vulnerability? That is the most important element of amendments Nos. 80 and 109.

Given the woeful performance of some local authorities in fulfilling their duties on assistance, will the Minister assure me that the amendment will ensure that nobody is turned away from an advice and assessment centre with no more than a list of alternative accommodation? I am a little concerned that the amendment may allow that still to happen.

Mr. Waterson: I compliment the hon. Lady on an elegant attempt at a tactical withdrawal. The fact is that the original amendment originated from our friends at Shelter, who say:

    ``we do not believe this amendment''—

that is, the Government amendment—

    ``goes far enough to address our concern that authorities should be required to deliver a basic minimum level of service.''

Perhaps this should be a lesson to lobby and pressure groups such as Shelter that the average Government Back Bencher is prepared to go only so far in rebelling on issues like this, and are likely to raise the white flag at the first whiff of grapeshot. The hon. Lady remains a little concerned. Let us hope that her little concerns can be allayed by the Minister. I have a sneaking suspicion that they can.

During a previous debate, I quoted at length from the imaginatively titled Shelter report, ``Singles Barred'', which gave examples of people who had received dismal treatment from local authorities.

Ms Buck: How can the hon. Gentleman reconcile his position with that taken by his colleagues on earlier amendments, when they launched attacks on central Government for centralising the placing of duties on local authorities? When he thinks that he can make a little personal point, he is prepared to ally himself with the forces of centralised prescription.

Mr. Waterson: I assure the hon. Lady that it is not a personal point, but a political point.

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is right. If any hon. Member were making an unparliamentary personal attack on another hon. Member, I can assure members of the Committee that I would step in to stop that.

Mr. Waterson: Thank you, Mr. Stevenson.

Ms Buck: On a point of order, Mr. Stevenson. I fully accept your ruling, but I was referring to the fact that the hon. Gentleman mentioned me by name when he was discussing my position on the earlier amendment.

Mr. Waterson: Indeed, it was a parliamentary attack on the hon. Lady and I make no apology for that. Like every other member of the Committee, she will have to face her own electorate in a few weeks' time.

The report from Shelter is pretty convincing. The original amendment, argued for by the hon. Lady and others, was based on what it considered to be appropriate. Shelter is clearly disappointed by the Minister's solution, but it appears that any majority on the Committee for pursuing the issue further has melted away. Therefore, I cannot take the matter any further.

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington North asked for clarification of obligations on local authorities not to turn homeless applicants away without an interview. As I explained earlier, that provision is already contained in existing legislation. It was originally established in the 1977 legislation and carried forward into the 1996 Act. Section 184 makes the position clear. It says:

    ``If the local housing authority have reason to believe that an applicant may be homeless or threatened with homelessness, they shall make such inquiries as are necessary to satisfy themselves—

    (a) whether he is eligible for assistance, and

    (b) if so, whether any duty, and if so what duty, is owed to him under the following provisions''.

That is the existing law. I accept that the evidence that has been adduced shows that it is not effective in every area, and it is essential that it should be effective. In the code of guidance that will accompany the new legislation and amplify the existing code of guidance we shall emphasise the importance of local authorities accepting their responsibility to all homeless applicants, but we cannot add a further statutory obligation, because one already exists. The important point is to make sure that it works.

On that basis, I hope that the hon. Lady will accept that the amendment is sensible. As I said, we believe, on the basis of considerable legal advice, that it is a much stronger and more effective formulation than the one proposed in her amendment. I hope that those who were engaged in promoting it—particularly Shelter—will recognise that. It is our policy objective that all local authorities should ensure that all homeless applicants are properly assessed and receive appropriate support or assistance.

All that I can say to the hon. Member for Eastbourne is that I will never be surprised at the Opposition's ability to move from one position to another, turning the most extraordinary somersaults without showing any shame at the inconsistency of their position.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: No. 86, in page 24, line 29, leave out ```the' and insert `the ``authority's'.

No. 87, in page 24, line 29, leave out `homelessness' and insert `housing'.—[Mr. Raynsford.]

Schedule 2, as amended, agreed to.

Schedule 3 agreed to.

Clauses 30 to 34 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

The Chairman: I call new clause 7.

Mr. Don Foster: Not moved.

Mr. Waterson: On a point of order, Mr. Stevenson. As you know, we are under the cudgels of a programme resolution and Opposition Ms have tried to curtail our remarks to ensure that all right hon. and hon. Members have the opportunity to have their day in court. It is amazing that at this late stage Liberal Members should choose not to move the new clauses, when we could have used the time to discuss more important things.

Mr. Foster: Further to that point of order, Mr. Stevenson. I remind the hon. Member for Eastbourne that during the meeting of the Programming Sub-Committee I joined him in seeking to persuade it to extend our deliberations until midnight on our last sitting. We were unsuccessful. Therefore, I hope that he will not continue to accuse me of trying to curtail the debate. May I also point out that there are some important issues still to be debated? I understand that, in particular, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon is anxious to have a reasonable debate on his new clause. One reason for my generosity in not moving new clauses 7 and 8 was as a courtesy to the right hon. Gentleman, who has not had the opportunity to make a major contribution to the debate. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Eastbourne is so curmudgeonly about my generosity.

The Chairman: Neither of those was a point of order. If the hon. Member for Bath wishes to withdraw the new clauses, that is entirely a matter for him. We now move on to new clause 14.

New Clause 14

Whether it is reasonable to continueto occupy accommodation

To move the following Clause:—

    `.—( ) In section 177 of the 1996 Act (whether it is reasonable to continue to occupy accommodation) after subsection (1) there is inserted—

    ``( ) It is not reasonable for a person to continue to occupy accommodation if it is probable that this will lead to racial harassment against him, or against—

    (a) a person who normally resides within him as a member of his family, or

    (b) any other person who might reasonably be expected to reside with him.

    For this purpose, ``racial harassment'', in relation to a person, means harassment from another person by reason of a person's race, nationality or ethnic or national origins.'.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss New Clause 15.

New Clause 15

Referral of applicant to another authority

To move the following Clause:—

    `( ).—(1) Section 198 of the 1996 Act (referral to another local housing authority) is amended as follows.

    (2) in subsection (2) at the end there is inserted—

    ``( ) neither the applicant nor any person who might reasonably be expected to reside with him will run the risk of racial harassment in that district.''

    (3) after subsection (3) at the end there is inserted—

    ``( ) For this purpose `racial harassment') in relation to a person, means harassment from another person by reason of a person's race, nationality or ethnic or national origins.''.'.

Ms King: I am pleased to speak to new clauses 14 and 15 as they seek to help victims of racial abuse. Anyone who doubts that tighter legislation in this area is required, need only speak to my constituents, both black and white, who have suffered racially motivated harassment and violence—families whose young children have suffered the most gratuitous and foulest language imaginable. They have had missiles thrown at them, excrement, burning rubbish and petrol bombs pushed through their letterboxes and suffered violent physical attacks. Such abuse takes place daily up and down the country. I sincerely hope that the Committee will take action to offer victims greater protection.

I know of a family with two teenage children living in owner-occupied accommodation who have experienced two years of racial harassment. This culminated in an attack on their home in December. On the night of the attack, their front door bell was rung constantly. When the father opened the door, a group of masked men rushed in, viciously assaulted him, breaking his jaw and his shoulder. When his wife tried to intervene, she was punched in the face. The daughter rushed upstairs to phone the police. The men entered the son's bedroom and assaulted him. They broke his nose, slashed his face and stabbed him twice in the thigh. Throughout the assault, the attackers continued to use racist insults. As a result of the attack, the father and son both needed extensive hospital treatment. The family were severely traumatised and, quite naturally, no longer felt safe in their home.

3.45 pm

Six months previously, the local authority was informed by a monitoring group that the family were suffering racial harassment and were at risk of racist violence following an 18-month hate campaign. The local authority took no immediate action, but suggested instead that they maintain a diary. That suggestion has been made to many of my constituents; indeed, I have had to make it myself. The family duly kept a diary, and in the six months leading up to the attack they noted and reported 18 separate incidents of racial harassment. The local authority prepared a case to seek possession of the perpetrator's home, but the action was not followed through. The local authority did not offer to re-house the family, as they were owner-occupiers. After the attack the family were offered emergency temporary accommodation, but they had to turn it down because they were unable to pay the rent for that accommodation and the mortgage on their home.

What would new clause 14 do in such cases? It would amend the Housing Act 1996 so that it would be unreasonable for a person who was experiencing racial harassment to continue to occupy the accommodation in question. In such circumstances, applicants would be regarded as homeless and would be entitled to an assessment to determine whether they were in priority need as defined in the forthcoming regulations.

Fewer than half all local authorities have policies in place to address racial harassment. As many of my colleagues are aware, the authorities that have such policies are limited to initiating protracted eviction proceedings against the perpetrators, or to re-housing existing tenants. That leaves people in the private sector virtually unprotected. New clause 14 would substantially improve their ability to access the homelessness safety net.

It is clear that the existing legislation, which amounts to weakly drafted guidance, does not go far enough to protect those suffering racial violence, let alone those who suffer racial harassment or the threat of racial violence. A household may apply under section 175(3) of the 1996 Act on the ground that it is not reasonable for them to continue to occupy their accommodation. However, in practice many of those who flee racial violence are unable to use that route to establish that they are homeless. Their future depends on whether their local authority is prepared to exercise its discretion.

I am pleased to say that my own local authority has an excellent track record in that regard. In the past four years, I have come across only two cases in which the authority refused to accept a duty of care. In both cases, the homeless persons unit quickly changed the decision once more substantive evidence of harassment and the threat of violence was produced.

However, it is clear that the example of best practice offered by Tower Hamlets and a small number of other metropolitan authorities is not matched elsewhere. Ministers may well conclude that the way to iron out such anomalies is through clearer secondary regulation or more strongly worded guidance. If an authority cannot take its responsibilities seriously, it needs a little more encouragement.

This issue is too serious to leave to chance. I would argue that a clear parallel can be drawn between the experience of those suffering racial violence and those fleeing domestic violence. Section 177 of the 1996 Act states that it is not reasonable for those who experience domestic violence or the threat of domestic violence to continue to occupy accommodation. Sadly, Shelter's research indicates that authorities are much more likely to help people at risk of domestic violence than those at risk of racial violence. The current guidance merely offers a suggestion that authorities can take or leave. That is why I want new clause 14 or something similar in the Bill.

I recognise that there are problems. Local authorities will have concerns about the potential for applicants to approach homeless services with unfounded allegations of racial harassment. I also recognise that not all or even most antisocial behaviour directed at ethnic minority families amounts to racial harassment. However, in the many clear cases in which families are subject to race-hate campaigns, councils must have a duty to act. If Ministers hold a similar view—I am sure that they do—they and their advisers are no doubt more than capable of making the definition of racial harassment less ambiguous.

It would be preferable if the family that I talked about at the start of my speech were rehoused after its members were victims of racial harassment, but before they were victims of racial violence. Prevention is obviously better than cure. In the real world of the east end, many of my constituents, black and white, believe that they are victims of racial harassment, but it would be impossible to rehouse each family that claimed racial harassment. I ask the Minister to consider what protection can be given to those who, having suffered racial harassment, are deemed to be at risk of racial violence.

New clause 15 will ensure that applicants fleeing racial harassment or violence cannot be referred back to an area where they would be at risk of abuse. It mirrors a provision contained in the 1996 Act on domestic violence. When the Minister responds to both new clauses, I sincerely hope that he will share my and my Labour colleagues' determination that much stronger duties to help those fleeing racial violence should be included in the Bill.

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